Life & Culture

Hope from Israel for the speechless

The plot of Penny Joelson’s thriller hinged on new technology now going into production and giving hope to people unable to communicate


Imagine being unable to communicate, trapped in a body that gives you almost no control. Imagine witnessing a murder, but you can’t tell anyone what you’ve seen. And then imagine that clever researchers in Israel find a way to give you a voice.
Back in 2014 this was the premise I came up with for a Young Adult thriller. I decided the protagonist would be a teenage girl with severe cerebral palsy who couldn’t move or communicate but who enjoyed observing the world around her. I did a lot of research, including investigating ways that my character, Jemma, would be able to communicate by the end of the book.
I knew technology was making a huge difference to many with disabilities that involved communication issues. Those unable to speak and with limited movement now have options including head pointers and eye-gaze recognition.
Browsing online I came across a completely new invention, created by a team of researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. They had explored the idea that sniffing might give a method of control for those who had no other movement at all, including those with complete paralysis.
A slender plastic tube with pressure probes in the nostrils is attached to a device with sensors that are connected to a computer. A software program then converts sniff characteristics, magnitude and duration into commands that give controls, like the click of a mouse.
Ten quadriplegic people who tested the device in initial trials were able to surf the internet and type text relatively easily. The ability to sniff is one of the last brain-control pathways that patients lose with conditions such as neurological disease ALS, and is well preserved even after serious brain and spinal cord injuries.
For some this new technology has the potential to be completely life-changing.
I contacted the researcher at the Weizmann, Noam Sobel, and his team. I discovered that while they had patented the device, their research was moving on and they hoped someone else would put it into production. I was pleased to include something invented in Israel in my book and hoped someone might pick up on it and offer to start producing the sniff controllers. Sadly, this didn’t happen.
But the wonderful news I recently received from Sobel is that he along with several members of the research team have created a company, Sniff Logic, and are now putting the device into production themselves. I see that much patience is needed with research and developments, just as it is with writing fiction. There are many ups and downs — successes, failures, near misses — before a book, or an invention takes off. Sniff Logic offers a wired and a wireless version of the sniff controller, used to select options from “yes and no” to pictures/phrases and to a keyboard to spell out words and sentences.
Who will benefit? Maybe people who are paralysed in hospital to see if they have brain function or it might be children in Africa with cerebral palsy who have no access to technology. Or it might offer a more affordable technology for those using more expensive methods.The cost is only around £100, far less than many technological solutions. It can also be used to measure breathing. I hope people can benefit, the way Jemma does in my novel (though hopefully not for identifying murderers!).

‘I Have No Secrets’ is published by Farshore.

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